Buses: will they become a lifeline for our villages again?

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Buses are key to public transport in east Kent

A friend recently told me about his mother-in-law. Aged 73, Stephanie (not her real name) had to stop driving for a few weeks after she had a mini-stroke. She lives a few miles outside Canterbury. Unable to use her car, she thought she could use the bus — but there is no regular service near her. So the question is: do we abandon Stephanie and people like her?

Do we leave her alone to decide whether and how she makes it to hospital appointments? Do we accept that her social life and quality of life will decline? And, looking at the bigger picture, do we stand by as our villages fall apart?

Under the current Canterbury District policies, the answer is mainly ‘Yes’ to the questions above. The bus service is largely operated by Stagecoach, a commercial company, not a charity, and it needs to make a profit. The real issue now is whether we, through Canterbury City Council and Kent County Council, should use our creativity, collective will and shared funds to reach our fellow residents in Chartham, Thanington and other places that are currently poorly served. What can we do at an affordable cost?

Stephanie is one of thousands whose lives are curtailed by a lack of transport. Two Women’s Institute branches in Canterbury completed a survey in June which showed that they spend an average of £4.05 a month per head on travelling by taxi because there is no bus. Just over half (18) of the 34 women who filled in the questionnaire were unaffected — mainly because they lived near the city centre or have a car. But the remaining 16 seem to lose out quite significantly. Six of them (that is 18 per cent) cannot afford a taxi and so miss out on “social activities”, “all sorts of things”, “trips to shops with friends” and other activities that city-dwellers and drivers take for granted.

One woman who spends £15 a month on taxis says the lack of evening buses means that “going to the cinema or theatre is hard”. Another, whose annual taxi spend is £60, says she “cannot visit friends or children”. Another waits for lifts from her children. And another counts herself fortunate to be able to walk. In a civilised society, these are quite substantial restrictions on a part of living that we value very highly — seeing family and friends and keeping in touch with culture.

Julie Board, President of the St Stephen’s branch of the Women’s Institute, says that most members of her group are concerned about the situation, even if they are fine themselves. “They don’t think it’s fair,” she says. “And they are worried about the effects on children who are socially isolated if they can’t get into Canterbury. The children don’t have access to friends or activities. It is important they can join in shared activities with their friends at school. But many of these activities are based in Canterbury, often making it impossible for them to get home afterwards when there is no public transport available in the evenings.”

The inadequacy of the bus service is now rising up the agenda across the country. So concerned is the Women’s Institute nationally about the resulting mental health and isolation issues that it has prioritised rural buses as one of two campaigns it is championing this year. And the Department of Transport is also recognising that the service has many gaps.

The Canterbury Society is holding a meeting on bus services on 5 September to discuss these issues. Congestion and climate change issues also mean that we should be trying to fund more public transport. We have left this vital subject on the ‘too difficult’ pile for too long.

Canterbury Society meeting: Thursday, 5 September at the Friends Meeting House, The Friars, Canterbury at 7 for 7.30. Everyone is welcome. Tea, coffee and biscuits are served (free) from 7pm.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Many buses, especially out of busy hours, travel around nearly empty with a damaging carbon footprint. KCC subsidises some routes without proper research. Years ago such a subsidised bus ran from Preston, near Wingham to Aylesham.

    My kids used to call it the “Airbus” as all it carried was that collection of gases between those locations….maybe it is still carrying only that cargo now?

    With modern technology it might make more sense if a shared 2e -transit vehicle could be summoned by older people who would be given an amount of credit , and could talk/email other similar people to arrange mutual door to door transport in say a 12 seater. It might also help that other danger older people suffer from, loneliness.

    These vehicles could either be “taxis” which would benefit from guaranteed contract work or be driven by people just over retirement age, giving them a sense of purpose and the chance to relate to and help older people than themselves. Car share again requires on line skills and connectivity but could lead to social contact for older people.

    Incidentally, how can it be rational in a digital age to have queues of taxis waiting in ranks or hoping for fares from train passengers late at night. How much “down time” ,with no earnings, do they have? Or conversely how much does that increase fares for passengers?

    A new transport system would need people to have basic computer ability and there are still many people “left behind” not just by no buses but by lack of on line skills. Lets spend some money on that too!

    Catching a bus is not always suitable for older people as it goes from and arrives at ,very precise locations that may well not match peoples’ travel needs. It ialso involves waiting outside in all weathers.

    Neasa mentions one person who spends £4.05 per month on taxi fares. That would equate to only one trip.

    Meanwhile all over 60’s, no matter what their income, have free bus travel….not to mention Winter Fuel Allowance. Lets target benefits on older people who need them rather than treating them all as in need.

    The number of older people is set to grow by 30% within a few years so a big challenge and a potentially big bill for the taxpayer.

    Take away those benefits through income tax for those with incomes over an agreed level. No separate and embarrassing “means test ” needed!

    Thinking outside the box may present better ideas and get older people more connected socially and spatially than just paying for more untargetted buses.

    I hope readers will respond in imaginative ways

  2. It was calculated that having a means test for over 60’s for a bus pass or fuel allowance would means spending more money than saving them. More officials, more work hours, etc.

  3. Stagecoach’s reason for existing is to make a profit so if it’s not profitable to transport poor people in the middle of nowhere, they won’t do it.
    The council could subsidise them but why should our tax money pay for their profits? Maybe it’s time for PUBLIC transport to be PUBLICLY owned – like it is in London.
    I highly doubt that will happen with a Conservative national and local government though – unless they’re willing to put people above profit.

    • absolutely agree with you, it is the only way we will get a decently inclusive service, not just to benefit older people but people of all ages; nothing can be more isolating than being stuck at home with young children unable to get anywhere.

  4. Felix, you missed my point. No more “officials” but cut the benefits or at the very least tax them for those who are older but reasonably well off. Deducted with your ordinary Income Tax.

    Henry, lots of companies running services make less than 5% of turnover as profit so if you nationalised them and they were less than 95% as efficient, highly likely with a government run enterprise, you would loose out.

    Come on lets have some new ideas not just tired old mantras.

  5. Nick Blake I think it is you that is behind the times. Means testing is costly but a privatised transport system, heavily subsidised by the government is costly too.

  6. With all the academic expertise we are lucky to have in Canterbury ,but seldom seem to utilise for the benefit of the local community, I wonder if bus travel pricing might be a suitable research project.

    Too few decisions these days are made on hard evidence and data availability , rhetoric and subjectivity being the order of the day. If cost benefit analyses are undertaken they focus just on hard money rather than the wider hidden social and environmental costs . The current NHS consultation here in East Kent being a prime example.

    I wonder therefore what would be the economic and environmental impact of say halving current bus fares or heaven forbid making the service completely free for everyone at the point of use..

    Has anyone ,anywhere in the world done any work on this? .It would be fascinating to learn the results..

    If Dave Wetzel is still around bring him in!!

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